Vlachs of Ukraine. Who are they?

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Vlachs have been living on the lands of today’s Zakarpattia since XIII century. However, this unique etnic group is not at all bound by the past. Till now, one official version of their origins simply does not exist, and even Vlachs themselves don’t know their own history — they pass on stories, heard from parents and great-grandparents. They live in large families, care for the community, are skilful with wood, are fluent in Ukrainian (even though at home they speak local dialect of Romanian) and live in the present.

Throughout history many peoples have been attracted to pastures high in the southern Carpathian mountains. While empires and nations have been collapsing and emerging everywhere around, here people were breeding cattle and lived on forests’ gifts, passing knowledge and crafts from generation to generation until nowadays. This way Vlachs culture has been preserved in Zakarpattia region. Descendants of initially semi-nomadic groups of vlachs, who were cattlemen, continue speaking particular Romanian dialect and mastering traditional woodcraft. However, where from and when they came and why they decided to “settle down” here, is still a mystery to scientists as well as to vlachs themselves — their history has been passed down as a word of mouth and has been then forgotten.

Obava. Making spoons

Olena sits on the low chair in the workshop next to the house. Behind her back there are shelves full of tools and cans, on the wall hangs an old bicycle wheel. Her husband Volodymyr Voloshyn is chopping wood. On the floor pawed with wood — chops of wood, bricks and finished wooden spoons.

— What old people did, that’s what we are doing now.

For the craftsmen’s family, as well as for many vlachs from Obava, making spoon is a family business and the main income source.

— We know how to make spoons and spatulas from wood. That’s all we do.

Every day Voloshyn couple makes 40-50 spoons, to take to the market the next day. It is a difficult and multistage process.

— Husband makes blanks. Goes to the forest for wood, makes blanks from the round wooden bars.

Volodymyr first chops wood with an axe. Then sits down on the chair next to his wife, takes an axe by its head and starts “cleaning” rectangular bricks with the blade. He chops off strips of wood to make narrow and long handles; after that takes off small splinters from the wider part, where the bowl (deeper part) will be.

Olena cleans blanks with an ordinary knife: starts with carving the shoulder, then shapes the scoop round and finally smoothes out the handler. From time to time she smiles and speaks to her husband in a local dialect of Romanian.

— We were taught to speak Romanian by mom and dad. They lived here, just like all our ancestors.

So Vlachs of Zakarpattia are bilingual: they speak local dialect of Romanian in the community and Ukrainian outside it:

— Our children learn two languages: Ukrainian and Romanian. Romanian is spoken at home, and when a child goes to the kindergarten, he needs to know Ukrainian, to stand up for himself, to tell everything to the teacher.

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Vlachs learn traditional craft as children from their parents. Spoon maker Yurii Simochko from Obava has learned the craft from father and now passes his knowledge down to the sun:

— My younger son learned to do that, but the elder one didn’t want to. And the younger one knows how to make spoons.

Language and craft are a little of what’s left of Vlachs’ traditions:

— We follow Easter traditions, just as all Ukrainians. Easter, Christmas, holidays, we don’t have our own traditions. We are just doing what everybody does. Some are leaving to work abroad, and we work with spoons, like that.

Local craftsmen tell that earlier troughs and bowls were made in Vlachs’ villages, but now there are only spoon-makers left:

— Old people knew how to make them, but young — we don’t do it anymore, only spoons, and that’s it.

Mariia Voloshyna, Olena’s aunt, explains that the reason for this is exhaustion of nature’s resources:

— Back then there were forests, people were carrying (wood. — ed.). And now there aren’t — forests are cut down. For a big trough, for example, there is no wood anymore, just for spoons. You can’t make a trough out of it.

So, nowadays in small Vlach communities in Zakarpattia out of all traditional crafts people make spoons. Technology is almost the same for everyone. Men cut blanks out from willow, poplar, aspen or linden trees. It is then cleaned: with an axe, as Olena’s husband does, or with a special curved knife of a shape that is suitable for making a spoon bowl, or with a “lyzhka” — round cutter for carving a dent in the spoon. It is then left to hew and smooth out rough surface of the almost finished spoons. It is usually done by women. Next day they bring their products to sell on the market. Olena tells that Vlachs do not have designated place to sell, they go to markets in various Ukrainian cities:

— Kyiv, Zhytomyr, Lviv, Stryi, Kalush, Frankivsk, Uzhhorod, Chop — everywhere! Berehove, Svaliava, Volovets, Slavsk, Skotarske — we go everywhere, everywhere.

However, either craftsmen family nor other Valchs of Zakarpattia know how Vlachs started making spoons or where they came from.

Forgotten history is not rare for nomadic people with oral culture. Knowledge and common ideas of the past get lost, and with no documentary sources to learn own history from, descendants of such ethnoses do not live in past.

— We don’t know. We were left here, so we’ve made a life here.

Where do Vlachs come from?

Vlachs’ origin is a mystery not only to them, but also to the scientific community. Researchers often connect the name of ethnic group with Wallachia — a historical region that lies between Danube and Romanian part of Carpathians. By the way, the name of a “walnut” is connected with Wallachia — probably from there it has made its way to Ukraine.

In the early 14th century Wallachia was part of Danubian principality Muntenia. In the 19th century Wallachia was united with Moldavian principality — another monarchical state Prydniprovia north from Wallachia. This theory of Vlachs’ origin is presented in the Great explanatory dictionary of Ukrainian language. “Vlachs” is a name for medieval population of principalities on the banks of Dnipro and Transylvania — famous homeland of Count Dracula. Therefore Vlachs are descendants of the people, which have been forming Romanian and Moldavian nations later in the 19th and 20th centuries.

However, this is only one of the versions. Word “vlach” existed already in the times of Roman Empire. In the Old Germanic language “vlachs” was used for habitants of romanized provinces or Rome. There were several provinces like that not far from Carpathians: Dacia and Moesia on the lands of the modern-day Romania, Macedonia and Thrace (territories of the modern-day Bulgaria, Serbia, Greece and Turkey).

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After the Migration period, in particular Slavs crossing Danube (6th-8th c.), romanized provinces have collapsed. Their habitants — “Aromanians”, “Thraco-Romanians” or “Vlachs” — have switched to semi-nomadic lifestyle: they have started breeding cattle and would leave with the flock to the far pastures every spring. In the 11th century Byzantine author Kekavman called them “Vlachs of Balkans”. Supporters of this theory consider Vlachs to be romanized people of Balkans and think then during the Middle Ages Vlachs have been moving from Balkans up north along the valleys of Sava and Great Morava rivers, and finally have crossed Danube.
Later part of them reached Moravia — historical region in the South-East Czech Republic. Others settled down in Transylvania, from where in 13th century reached Halychyna (Galicia), and later also Maramures — historical region in Carpathians, which we call Zakarpattia today.

Proof that this theory is correct is often taken from the spread of so-called “Wallachian law” on the territory of Western Ukraine in the 14th-15th centuries.

However, in the middle of the 15th century significant transformation of the word “Vlach” occurred. Back then in the Serbian law “vlach” was a synonym for the “shepherd”. The same meaning was also present in Moravia two centuries later. So later on ethnonym “Vlach” was turned into a term that no longer defined ethnicity, but rather affiliation with a particular social group, in this case with the group of cattlemen, shepherds. This theory makes it virtually impossible to determine identity of the Vlachs of Zakarpattia, as there have at all times been many groups of cattlemen.

Wallachian law
Customary law that regulated legal relations of the rural population during the 13th-18th centuries mostly in mountain villages where people were engaged in stock-breeding

Vlachs of Zakarpatiia

Because of this uncertainty, today Vlachs are considered to be the people who speak Eastern Romanic languages: Aromanians, Thraco-Romanians, Megleno-Romanians, Istro-Romanians and Morlachs. This ethnic group has inhabited territories of Central, Eastern and South-Eastern Europe, in particular there are settlements of Vlachs in Hungary, Serbia, Croatia, Macedonia, Albania, Greece and Bulgaria. Sometimes Poland is also added on this list.

In Ukraine Vlachs mostly live in villages in Zakarpattia: Obava, Myrcha, Vyzhnytsia, Poroshkov. There is only one settlement outside Zakarpattia — village Voloske in Dnipropetrovsk region, that was founded in the 18th century by Vlachs, freed by Zaporozhian Cossacks.

There is no verified information about Zakarpattian Vlachs also coming from Wallachia. In general, historical memory of Vlachs as complex ideas and knowledge about common past, is disappearing. So it’s no wonder that they are often confused with another ethnic groups here, especially with Roma.

However, such a comparison is based on stereotypical identification of both groups with Moldavians and Romanians. But given the theory of Vlachs origin, such a simplification is wrong. It is clear without immersing into their history, how different these two ethnic groups are.

Unlike Roma, Zakarpattian Vlachs do not live in camps, have generally light skin tone and often light hair and eyes. Vlachs speak Romanian dialect, maybe Thraco Romanian (according to another version, preserved literary Romanian from 18th c.), that is foreign to Roma.

Poroshkovo. Horbat family

Vasyl, Serhii and Zhana Horbat, Vlachs from Poroshkovo village, who live next to Roma camp, confirm that these two thnic groups speak completely different languages:

— We understand Romanians well. They’ve been coming here a lot lately. We understand language of Romanians, but not Roma.

Poroshkovo village is the biggest Vlach village in the region, more than two and a half thousand Vlachs live here now (and this is almost half of all Vlachs in Ukraine at the moment), and their number is rapidly growing:

— The further, the more population is growing. We have big families, eight, nine kids, ten even. There is one elder man, so he has twenty kids in a family.

Early marriages and big families are traditional for Vlachs. Families usually live close: parents build houses for newlyweds close to their own home. So children are raised by the whole family. Just twenty years ago Vlachs rarely put their children to study, from a young age kids would help around the household and work. Today, as Zhana Horbat tells, all children go to local school, even though not all finish their studies:

— I’ve been going for eleven years to Ukrainian secondary school. All our children study in Ukrainian. Well, not all study until eleventh grade. Some only study till ninth, some till eighth, seventh grade. There is a serious decline, as children are often sent to earn money, there is no such will to send them to school.

From an early age Vlachs are involved in a family’s life. It explains to some extent cohesion of Vlachs community. Unofficial leader of Vlachs is a “birov” (a “judge” in Hungarian). It is interesting, that from all the settlements of Vlachs in Zakarpattia, there is birov only in Poroshkovo. But he is called a baron here, probably as a result of living so closely to Roma for many years. Zhana and Vasyl Horbat tell that first birov in Poroshkovo was their late father. Brother and sister remember, that he was chosen by Vlachs in the village, asked to lead the community:

— He became the baron here. People put him, as there was quite a chaos here. And father took matters into his own hands: making roads, resolved everything with people himself. He knew his way with people, he was very much respected.

Birov in Poroshkovo does not have real powers. His informal jurisdiction extends only to Wallachians, while there are Ukrainians living in the village, there are village head and local government. Birov is actually kind of connecting link, he represents interests of Vlach community and reaches an understanding with “not Vlach” part of the village.

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Zhana explains, that her father was responsible for resolving any conflicts and affairs in the community and was a great authority:

— Even when a person has a problem, he’ll come to the head (of the village. — ed.), and they will ask: “Have you been to the baron? Ask him”. All doors are open for baron in the district, region, while for a simple man doors won’t be open. He has a right to resolve everything, he has to know about a man, well, everything.

After father’s death, Vasyl took over the responsibility of being a birov. His cousin Serhii helps him to play new role. Together they also continue and develop fathers craft — carpentry.

In general in Poroshkovo traditional Vlach craft is almost forgotten. Here, according to Vasyl, many people are involved with construction:

— For the last five-six years main income, on which Vlachs live, is from abroad. Many people work on construction sites. Helper, also there are good workmen, who can do everything there. Who cannot build, those go to cut the forest. In Chernivtsi, Ternopil area — there are our people everywhere. They gather five-six people in a brigade and leave for work. People are working, trying.

It has started back in Soviet times: back then the whole families of Vlachs used to go to Kazakhstan “for mudbricks”, that is to work at a construction site. Vasyl remembers how his family was leaving on this trip. He was only six years old during first trips like that:

— In Kazakhstan homes were built only from mudbrick back then. There was no brick there. Until the 1990s there was only mudbrick there. Father would take ten to twelve people, we were going in whole families, with women and children, for that mudbrick.

When Ukraine became independent, Vlachs of Poroshkovo continued to build, but now in Ukraine. And Vasyl’s father decided to master a new craft:

— When Union fell apart, I remember how father came straight home and made a woodworking machine for himself and started his carpentry works. And it started like this.

Since twelve, Vasyl was helping his father to work on a homemade woodworking machine. Vasyl says he felt the urge to work with wood immediately and showed remarkable skills. He remembers how at fifteen he has helped father to make a carving on the door:

I remember as today, father wanted to do it himself, he just didn’t know how. And I heard from him, went and got it done in half an hour. I just took the drill, a piece of metal and welded one piece at the top, used my imagination, leaned against a drilling machine, and done.

Raw bricks from a mixture of clay, straws, sand or other plant materials

Later Vasyl was working with wood on the plant in Khmelnytskyi, where he immediately asked manager to buy new woodworking machines. Vasyl tells that manager was not sure at once, as Vasyl was self-taught, but finally agreed to give him a chance to express himself.

So carpentry has become an important part of Vasyl’s life. Today he has his own workshop in Poroshkovo, where together with his cousin they make custom furniture, and Vasyl also makes decorations for his own house.

So Vlachs of Zakarpattia have preserved a number of their cultural features, and proudly speak about their Wallachian origin. However they do not seek national self-determination or sovereignty and consider themselves to be Ukrainians:

— We are Ukrainian citizens, we don’t have Vlachs, we don’t have Romanians. Father has been seeking to have “Romanians” in the passports. We were not given our own (Wallachian. — ed.) citizenship. Because if we had our citizenship, we would need our president, school, everything to be ours. We don’t have this. Everything is Ukrainian.

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